Green Lantern Arrived Too Early or Too Late

Most movies come and go without a second thought. Only a very few rise to the top of our minds and burrow into our subconscious as the exact movie we need at a particular time. The right movie of an age. Saturday Night FeverThe French ConnectionCluelessApocalypse Now. A moment. A mood. They capture something fundamental about the time they exist in and say precisely what needs to be said about it.

Green Lantern isn’t one of those movies. It’s an even rarer artifact. The kind of movie that came out exactly at the wrong time.

The CGI-fueled superhero origin story starring Ryan Reynolds as Top Gun wannabe Hal Jordan, Blake Lively as aerospace company VP, and a ring that imbues the worthy with incredible power and responsibility landed with a thud in 2011. Reynolds can joke about it now as Deadpool, but the timing of the production and release compounded the embarrassment of the movie. Had it been released in 2006 or 2016, everyone would have bumped it up at least a full letter grade.

I got to visit the Green Lantern set in 2010, and the thing you need to know about set visits is that they don’t always go the way studios want. Like the movies themselves, some inspire and amaze, some fail miserably, and most do just enough to be memorable. It’s crazy to think back on the Green Lantern set because the visit couldn’t have gone better.

The concept art, the interviews, and ideas. Everyone from Reynolds to Mark Strong to director Martin Campbell seemed to get the comic book at a fundamental level that signaled how wild and weird and wonderful they were trying to make the movie. They wanted a big, expansive space opera with a valiant, imaginative hero battling an enormous, sweaty head and evil yellow space tar with Diablo’s face.

In a way, that’s what we got. We also got a bloated, clumsy movie that struggled to contain Reynolds’ joyful sarcasm and Peter Sarsgaard’s growling mustache twirling under one roof with some ill-advised CGI.

I’m not trying to cheat here and claim that a different movie made at a different time would have been better appreciated, but I recognize what I’m arguing (although dead serious and of crucial import) is impossible. The exact same movie couldn’t have existed in either 2006 or 2016, but this thought experiment presupposes that, if it did, we’d have appreciated it way more.

The major reason for that is the superhero field itself.

Consider 2011. The midway point of Grimdark as popular aesthetic. DC’s cinematic run following its post-Batman & Robin rethink included Constantine, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, V For VendettaWatchmen, and Jonah Hex. Reynolds soared into that club in a goofy, literally skin tight super suit singing space arias like he was Rainbow Randolph trying to sit at the Goth table. It was really weird. In the midst of sullen, haggard, grimacing anti-heroes came this vibrant, comic book-style comic book movie that was shouldered with the burden of giving hope to the possibility of an extended universe that Superman failed to provide.

On the other side of the playing field, Marvel had already started the tectonic shift with Iron Man and Nick Fury’s post-credits point to the bleachers.

But back in 2006 it was still open season on what a comic book superhero movie could look like. Marvel was a couple of years away from launching its multi-decade take over and even further away from crafting the semi-serious style that’s come to most define superhero movies of this era.

In 2006, Green Lantern‘s space opera would have still been free to be a fun popcorn seller coming out on the pointy heels of Catwoman and could have played as a counterpart to the universe Batman Begins was building. Proof that DC wasn’t only operating in one mode. Hal Jordan soaring across the universe, a half-bird alien teaching him to control his mind, Sarsgaard playing a throwback mad scientist whose head keeps inflating like a diseased beach ball. Clunky as it is, you can’t accuse Green Lantern of not going for it. That insane, moronic gusto would have been rewarded in a genre still finding its feet.

By 2016, studios emerged from Marvel’s monopoly on style. It’s not coincidentally the year Deadpool came out, but more than that, Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man had already opened the tonal door to neon planetary insanity and disorienting, snarky silliness. Green Lantern may have gotten branded as a Guardians rip-off, but it would have still fit nicely into the stew of superhero movies taking chances after years of Marvel sameness.

With Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad landing that year, Green Lantern also could have been a bright breath of fresh air in that ever-dimming universe (and it would have teed up Wonder Woman, so the DCEU may have taken a very different course with its two formerly biggest sons of Martha faltering). It very well could have been the best DC superhero movie to land that year.

To put a CGI green bow on it, a 2006 release would have come with greater leniency from an audience still toying with what they needed superhero movies to be, and a 2016 release would have come with greater appreciation for doing something different after almost a decade of Marvel’s stylistic homogeneity, but Green Lantern‘s 2011 release plopped a misfit into a crowded field where the recipe for success was already mastered.

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